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When Chain, Chain, Chain is a Pain, Pain, Pain

I love smart dogs. I mean, who doesn’t? But sometimes having a dog who can not only put two and two together but keep right on going with their calculations can be challenging. Let me explain. All dogs make associative predictions. The leash means we’re going for a walk. The food bowl means yummy stuff is coming. Some dogs, though, take it even further, chaining together an entire series of events.

The classic example of backchaining happens with separation anxiety. A dog who is distressed when his owners leave observes that before the actual departure, the owner picks up her keys. Before that, she puts on her coat. And even before that, she dries her hair. Eventually, the dog becomes distressed when he hears the blow dryer, because he knows the rest of the sequence will lead to his owner’s absence. I once heard from another trainer about a dog who had separation anxiety and had backchained the entire weekday morning departure sequence to the owner’s alarm clock going off!

Backchaining came into play with our recently adopted dog, Sage. She had not only been in the shelter, but had been adopted and then returned. The first time we tried to get her into the car to go to the park, she balked. She was on leash, of course, but tried her best to bolt as far away from the car as possible. She seemed terrified. Was she afraid of being taken somewhere only to be abandoned again? Had she only taken car rides to go to the vet? Or maybe she’d hurt herself trying to jump in? I would have started a program of counterconditioning right away, but my husband suggested that if he just picked her up and put her in, after a few rides to the park she would come to associate the car with good things and the issue would take care of itself. It was worth a try! Sadly, it didn’t work out that way. Once in the car, Sage was distressed for at least the first part of the ride. The avoidance behavior when trying to get her into the car became strengthened. And even more troubling was that she had quickly figured out that getting in the car was proceeded by walking out the front door, which came after having the leash put on, which was preceded by the harness being put on. In no time at all, she ran whenever I picked up the harness. Aaack!

A behavior modification protocol is now underway. By initially using bits of hot dog, which she loves, and allowing her to stick her head through the harness hole herself, I was able to get the harness on her. We practiced it separately from anything else multiple times daily so that the harness never predicted anything scary. I can now harness her without the use of treats, and it only ever predicts a walk around the property or training in front of the house, both of which she enjoys. We’re also in the midst of practicing a protocol for the car, and it’s going well. If you’re interested in knowing what we’re doing, and getting some tips on dogs who are afraid of riding in the car, let me know in the comments and I’ll cover it in another post. In the meantime, Sage and I will be keeping up the good work and I look forward to being able to take her to a variety of fun places. ____________________________________________________ You can find my books, seminar recordings, blog, and more at and follow me on FB @NicoleWildeauthor. My dog trainer mentoring service can be found at Dog Trainer's Friend. And if wildlife photos are your thing, check out my Instagram at nicolewildeart. Art makes great holiday gifts!

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